Exactly two months ago, Syracuse Basketball’s postseason run began in the first round of the ACC Tournament at the Barclays center.¬†It was that game, against Wake Forest, that so many believed was a must win if the Orange wanted even a shot at making the NCAA Tournament. Before Syracuse Athletics’ calls it a year, let’s take a look back at how Jim Boeheim’s team went from NIT probables to one of the last 16 team’s standing.
The Period of Doubt
Going into the 2018 ACC Tournament, Syracuse had never won a game at the league’s annual postseason event. That hadn’t slowed them down in the past, but a loss to Wake Forest would have almost certainly put their chances of making it to the big dance to bed. Luckily for the Orange, it outlasted the Demon Deacons 73-64.
FINAL: @Cuse_MBB 73, @WakeMBB 64. #Cuse got 20 from Marek Dolezaj and put 5 in double figures; #Deacs were led by Bryant Crawford's 22. @LendingTree #ACCTourney pic.twitter.com/0OXYjSgz5R
— ACC Men's Basketball (@accmbb) March 7, 2018
Marek Dolezaj had a breakout game, scoring a career-high 20 points in the contest. The Orange started the contest on a 20-4 run and never looked back. The combination of Dolezaj and Chukwu (14 pts, 9 rbs) had SU fans excited about the possibility of a tournament run. Syracuse never had a great bench, but all of the sudden the starting five had some serious potential.
Then came North Carolina. Now that the monkey was off SU’s back, many were hopeful for an upset over the defending national champions. But, as soon as the game tipped off, one thing was clear: that was never going to happen. The Orange was 20-of-63 (.317) in a game where its offense never got into rhythm. So, here we go again, a great offensive performance followed by a clunker. All the positivity from the win a day earlier was gone, and Syracuse was firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
A day that historically has been full of excitement in Central New York was now filled with anxiety. Would the Orange miss out on the big dance for the second straight season? For me, this was a day I’ll never forget. Not only was I on the edge of my seat to find out the team’s fate, but I was embarking on a 10-hour road trip, which of course meant I didn’t have the luxury of watching the selection show on television.
You may be thinking that’s unfortunate, but it was actually quite the opposite. Instead of watching TNT botch its new format, I got to hear the Mad Dog talk about it on his SiriusXM channel, which actually raised the anticipation in my eyes.
With every logo that popped up on the screen, Christopher Russo reacted in classic Mag Dog fashion with lines like “Notre Dame IS OUT, Notre Dame IS OUT,” once the Fighting Irish’s spot in the alphabetically organized format was passed over. At that point, I had a pretty good feeling that SU was in, which of course turned out to be true. The wait was over, and Syracuse was going dancing.
Welcome to Dayton
When you’re the last team in the field of 64, you play your first game in Dayton, Ohio. But, let’s be honest, SU was more than happy to even have a shot at a national title. Facing the Arizona State Sun Devils, morale was pretty high among Syracuse super fans. That optimism turned to reality when freshman Oshae Brissett recorded his 13th double-double of his young career.
Syracuse overcame a seven-point deficit with 7:05 to go in the game. Surprise, but Tyus Battle came in clutch with a three-pointer to put the Orange ahead 55-52. Arizona State fought back, but Chukwu and Frank Howard iced the game at the free throw line to send the Orange to the round of 32.
WE FIGHT ON! üçäüèÄ#MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/DwginA0Vlz
— Syracuse Basketball (@Cuse_MBB) March 15, 2018
Let’s Keep the Train Moving
All the sudden, Syracuse is taking its talents to Detroit for a first round game against the TCU Horned Frogs. This again seemed like a decent matchup, but there was one glaring issue: Jamie Dixon had dominated Boeheim in his time at Pittsburgh. Would that trend continue? Marek Dolezaj had other ideas. The 6-foot-9 forward poured in 17 points to lead the Orange to victory. Once again, Battle and Howard came through in the clutch, knocking down consecutive floaters to put Syracuse up by five with 1:27 to play.
Ok, beating Arizona State and TCU is one thing, but beating Michigan State is another, right? Not so fast. The game between the Orange and the Spartans is the one that shocked the nation and will forever define SU’s 2018 run to the Sweet-16. The Orange’s defense, which had carried it up until this game, came through again. That stingy defense held the Spartans to 17-of-66 (.258) from the field on that Sunday in Detroit. Syracuse trailed 48-43 with five minutes to play, but that MSU lead wouldn’t last for long. The Orange forced the Spartans to miss each of their last 13 shots and went on to secure a 55-53 victory. The game ended in a fitting fashion, with Chukwu hitting the free throws to ice that game.
What? You mean to tell me the Orange has made it all the way to the Sweet-16? Yes, that’s right! Somehow, someway, Syracuse has advanced past Dayton and Detroit, and now finds itself two wins away from the Final Four. Even though SU had made it that far, there was still plenty of doubt surrounding its chances against the Duke Blue Devils. After all, this was a team who had crushed the Orange just a month prior at Cameron Indoor. In that game, it didn’t even feel like the team’s belonged on the same court.
Syracuse fell 69-65 in that game and its season came to an end.
FINAL: The Orange's NCAA run ends in the #Sweet16 pic.twitter.com/iAqSSXGK07
— Syracuse Basketball (@Cuse_MBB) March 24, 2018
There you have it, one of the craziest three-week stretches in SU Basketball history is over. This year’s team was one of the grittiest teams Boeheim has ever had, never quitting no matter how murky the waters got. As far as the fans are concerned, were you not entertained? A team that almost made the tournament found a way to rally together and advance all the way to the Sweet-16.
Two months ago, an incredible journey started. One that Orange fans should never take for granted.